Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

The End-of-a-Term Letter and Course Objectives

Many teachers ask students at the end of a term to write advice to future students. It’s a low-stakes assignment that can be done in small groups, and many teachers pass these letters along to new students early in the next semester.

The activity contains an element of misdirection. Advice for the next group is nice, but its metacognitive requirements give the task value: students must reflect on the term and on their own performances. We might ask students
to summarize what they’ve learned,
to explain successful learning strategies, and
to identify where they still need work.
Depending on what we ask, their responses might provide us with valuable feedback. We might find doing the activity for ourselves valuable, too.

A term’s end leads naturally to stock-taking, judging not only how well students met the objectives we set for them but also how well the course itself met the goals we had for it. The end of the term also provides an opportunity to reflect on what the objectives ought to have been in the first place.

Were the goals too ambitious or insufficiently so? Were some emphasized where others ought to have been? Did the assignments, tests, and other activities promote those goals, and did they give us a clear means to determine whether students were achieving those goals? Noting things that didn’t quite work while they’re fresh can help us be more precise later when it is time to fine-tune to our objectives and better match our assignments to them.

Want help thinking about precise course objectives? The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University has a page that can help:

A response from one of the faculty

James MacDonall (Psychology) writes:

"For 20 years, on the last day of class, I've been asking students to write a letter to a friend taking the course next time. I give no more direction than that! It is a great assignment - they write honestly to their friends on the good and the bad about the course, what is important, what you need to do to do well, etc. Frequently, I feel like a fly on the wall, listening to a conversation. I do not ask students to sign it, although they can if they want. I do not read them until after final grades are submitted. Then, on the first day of class next time, I distribute these letters and ask students to read them out loud. All are read, I hold none back, even the less flattering ones. This sets a good tone for the new students.

Students have an interesting reaction when I ask them to write the letter. Often they say, "I wondered how you got those letters."

And it is very useful at the beginning of the semester. Students routinely say you really need to study in this course, etc. Interestingly, students who have done poorly (because they did not listen to the letters) are very emphatic about doing what the letters say. Of course, I would say the same thing but it seems much more effective coming from students."

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